It’s the week between Xmas and New Year’s, and I have some of my kids home but not all. Mostly, we’re just cooking, taking out the trash, and doing dishes. Though the tree is still up, I washed and put away the red and green tablecloth today. It has pinecones on it, flecked with gold, and is big enough for my big dining room table; it was my mother’s. In my current state it seems unlikely I would ever buy a holiday tablecloth.
My mother really loved Christmas. Not in a religious way, but in her own joyous, restrained perfectionism. She chose her trees for their correct shape and symmetry, neither too tall nor too bushy, and decorated them according to a strict sequence of steps that I, having absorbed her teachings as the one, true way cannot yet deviate from despite years of genuine efforts to chill the fuck out. My mother had a stockpile of gorgeous wrapping paper, and wrapped each of our presents with an assortment of different giftwrap, finished with a tasteful explosion of hand-tied and curled ribbon and tagged with antique Victorian reproduction cards, our names written in her 50s textbook–perfect cursive on the back. Each child and grandchild got a stack of similar size on Christmas morning, so that no one had a sense that anyone got a single gift more than anyone else.
Ok, but the thing is, my mother was originally Jewish. But hers was the kind of mid-western Jewish family that has a very Jewish-sounding last name, but also has a Christmas-tree. My mother was so jealous of her younger sister Mary that she insisted her family say, “Sarah Christmas,” in addition to what she heard as, “Mary Christmas.” And anyway, what kind of Jewish family names their second daughter Mary?

My mother was not a joke-teller, but she did on occasion indulge in telling a Jewish Mother joke, on the grounds, she said, that she had one. Strictly speaking, my grandmother was like Baptist or something, but married a Jewish man. They had a Christmas tree in their living room. Was that what you did, to fit in, living in suburban St. Louis in the 50s? Or, was it what Grandma wanted?
Growing up in St. Louis in the fifties, most of my mother’s best friends were Jewish, too, and she ran with a popular, smart, and beautiful crowd. The stories  she told me about their Jewishness were these: that had my mother been born in 1940 in Germany, she would have been a “mischling, second degree,” and therefore just Jewish enough to be persecuted by the Nazis; that my grandfather worked in sales under the name of “Nickels” because “Nussbaum” was too Jewish-sounding; and, that she was introduced by a different, less Jewish-sounding name, by a high school boyfriend to his parents.
In December of 1961, she was up in the middle of the night, feeding my older brother, then a 7 month-old baby. From her chair in the kitchen of their third floor, walk-up apartment, she saw flames flickering in a window of another apartment across the way, and she call the fire department. Imagine her embarrassment when she found out it was the guttering flames of her neighbor’s menorah, during Hanukkah.
When she told this story to me, she expressed the perfect abashment of, “I should have known. I certainly should have known.”
There were stories she didn’t tell, like why she and Dad chose to be Episcopalian, or how Dad’s father handled her half-Jewishness. My parents sent my older brother and I to Sunday school for some years when we were young, but then we stopped. Why did we stop? Maybe it conflicted with hockey games.
When I was 13, my mother arranged for me to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church, with the reasoning that I would want to get married there someday. I did get married there, fulfilling the perfection of her circular logic: because I had been confirmed there. I hadn’t been to Sunday school in a number of years at that point, and there was a fair amount of memorization, some of which meant canceling my charmingly bizarre mondegreen of the Lord’s Prayer, and I’m sure I never mastered the Apostle’s Creed. I wrote the Apostle’s Creed on a piece of paper that I slipped into my pantyhose and could read by sliding up the hem of my skirt. Though I was a practiced liar, this is the only specific memory I have of cheating, in or out of school. I got away with it. The other kids were mostly from other schools, so I had no one to pass notes with. I endured this privation by doodling earnestly in the margins of my bible. The teacher was from my brothers’ private school and he reassured us that the bible was allegorical. I left confirmation class believing that I could go on being Episcopalian even if I didn’t think the bible was literally true.
Many Sundays, we were asked to read aloud, and this had served as an informal audition, for when it came to the Christmas Pageant I got to be a reader.
Of course, I was active in children’s theater in those days, having already played a retired roller derby queen, a horrible, evil gnome, the ugly duckling herself, and an assortment of reading, speaking, or screaming roles. I knew how to read, and project. And I knew the pageant’s prestige went to the three readers. Everyone else got to wear robes and carry a staff and hold very, very still. I had to stand at the dais and read Matthew 1:18 “Now the Birth of Jesus Christ came about in this way….”
The music at our church swelled from tall pipes, driven in joyous familiarity by a skilled organist, and with the candles and lush Christmas decorations, midnight mass on Christmas Eve was a sumptuous hour and a half.  In my memory, it stands out as the most traditionally Christmas-y thing I ever did. The pews were packed. Mothers and daughters wore matching Christmas dresses. Children old enough to stay up this late wore sport coats and ties. It seemed like everyone we knew was there. 
I stepped onto the footstool provided for me before the dais, and stumbled on the “Jesus,” in the opening line. So, it sounded like “juh-juh-jeezizz,” and then, I shouted out the “Christ!” I distinctly heard both my dad and a friend of his snorting with laughter. In the reception to follow, I stood eating cake, dripping powdered sugar on my velvet skirt, and drinking cider from a tiny plastic cup and Dad and his friend were both still laughing.

For my troubles, I had been promised a gold ring with my monogram on it. I still wear it. The letters engraved on it are almost completely rubbed away. On the inside it clearly reads, “1977.”

Easter Envy

Better colors than Xmas to my 6 year old eye
On Good Friday in 1969, I was almost 6 years old and my mother took me for my first visit to a beauty salon. I had long, thick brown hair and up until this day my mother had always been the one to trim it, outside on the brick patio, with her large, black handled, metal sewing scissors. My mother would yell at me regularly about the squirrel’s nest in my hair, but the squirrel’s nest wasn’t there; it would have been too wonderful for words to have my own squirrels. This day, Good Friday, 1969, my hair was gathered into a ponytail, secured with a rubber band, cut off, and handed to me. I sat in the salon chair, swinging my legs and holding my hair, stroking the long straight brown ponytail like it was a pet. I shook it like a whisk. I held it up so it could cascade out around my hand like a fountain. I brushed my face with it. When the stylist was done cutting my hair I had what my mother called “a pixie cut.” I thought it looked terrible and I cried silently all the way out of the salon, back to the front seat of our Ford Falcon.
On the way home I slid very low on the seat so the backs of my legs would not burn on the car’s hot, black, vinyl upholstery.   “What is Good Friday?” I asked.
“It’s a religious holiday. When Jesus Christ died,” my mother said.
My childhood was filled with mysteries; “Jesus Christ” was something my parents shouted at each other when they were very angry.
“Why is it a holiday if Jesus Christ died?” I asked.
“It’s part of Easter,” my mother said.
 I did not understand.
Easter was not one of the holidays we celebrated. We had Christmas. We put up a tree, made lists, and Santa brought presents. As far as I could tell, only the Presbyterians who went to the church across the street from us had Easter. They wore fancy dress-up clothes, the little girls in smocked dresses and white tights and shiny Mary Janes, the boys in seersucker sailor suits and saddle shoes and little caps with white piping. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down Optimist Baseball League t-shirts and cut-off jeans, and ran around with no shoes most of the time so my feet could take the hot pavement in summer. I spied on the Presbyterians lying on my stomach on the cool tiles of the side porch of our house. When the church bells were done ringing and the last of the church-goers filed in the door, I might go crawl around our suburban yard to see what the cat was doing or look for a long line of ants.  
I wanted the Easter bunny to come and bring me a huge Easter-colored basket filled with green plastic grass and stuffed rabbits and ducks and plastic eggs filled with jelly beans. I wanted to dye eggs with a Paas kit and hide them for my little brother, pretending that the Easter bunny had done it. It would have been like a second Christmas, with prettier colors. 
In the family photo album there were pictures of my older brother at an Easter egg hunt at my father’s parents’ house when my brother was 3. By the time I was 3, and I was old enough to ask for one, but there were no more Easter egg hunts. By the time I was old enough to wonder about religion or Jesus or Easter, my parents had stopped going to church and stopped sending us to Sunday school.  I was pretty sure maybe I wanted parents who would dress me up in a new dress with little ducks appliqued on it, who would buy me white tights and shiny new Mary Janes, and we would walk into church with my brother Clark holding my hand. Well, maybe I hated wearing dresses or any shoes at all, and my brother punched me, and church was very boring and Sunday school smelled like paste, but I still wanted that basket. I really wanted my own Easter basket.
Clark still likes to tell a story about our cat Sugar killing baby bunnies on the front lawn one Easter while the horrified Presbyterians (who were our enemies because of their poor parking manners) filed by on their way to church, stifling their screams, and hiding their eyes. Sugar was a prodigious hunter, able to catch a mouse in the ivy as casually as Clark would toss a baseball into his glove. Sugar did bring us a litter of screaming baby bunnies one day, one at a time, all in various stages of shock, but I think it happened on an ordinary quiet day in spring. My mischievous father was the one who suggested that Sugar should have done it on Easter, and gleefully described the parade of traumatized Presbyterians witnessing the slaughter.  My family was the kind that laughed at church-going-people, holding hands and wearing matching outfits, singing about Jesus’ love and yet parking so they blocked our driveway.
Many years later, when my own children were small, my old-world mother-in-law would send us tiny fancy Easter outfits, complete with matching socks and small caps with white piping. Sometimes we had to wait a year or two for the one-piece sailor suit to fit one of our boys; other times we might wait a whole year for an occasion worthy of stuffing our wild toddlers into dress-up clothes. If the outfits were worn, they were worn once; some went to Goodwill without ever being taken off the plastic hanger or coming out of the sealed, clear plastic bag. For many years, this Hungarian grandma, known as Nagymama, would send lavish Easter baskets, with huge chocolate bunnies and jellybeans and stuffed animals. Usually the package would take us by surprise because we never paid any attention to the arrival of Easter.